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A Carving is the Death of a Stone


The phenomenon of getting lost inside of piece of music fascinates me. There is a timelessness within the duration of the song. There are works, songs, that I have listened to over and over, each new listening transforming into a sort of vision where the boards or bricks of the house seem to separate and open and another world is glimpsed from between the slats and rafters - Plato's realm of Ideal Forms, the ancient crystalline spheres of the Universe with crystalline gears and inner workings sounding celestial music. This, I reiterate, hidden away inside, in the "the dearest freshness deep down things," as the magical robe inside the wardrobe or through the looking-glass, passages through into a higher world.

And, for me, It doesn't have to be an acclaimed work of serious music. A recent example was Anais Mitchell's Young Man in America. When I was in the Chama Canyon last year, I lost myself in that song, dreaming between her words and the melody, following elusive memories as the hovered there just on the edge of my awareness. I played it over and over as i walked through the canyon, sat beside the Chama River, gazed into the fire, studied the stars. And while I heard her lyrics, I was listening to something else. It seemed as i lived weeks and months in between each word of the song. Every time I started over, I felt like I was in the Land of the Lotus Eaters; give me another "minute" in that timeless realm.

Like the wind I make my moan, howling in the canyon
There's a hollow in my bones, make me cry and carry on
Make the foam fly from my tongue, make me want what I want
Another wayward son waiting on oblivion

Waiting on the kingdom come to meet me in my sin
Waiting to be born again, mother, kiss me cheek and chin
Mmm, a little medicine, mmm, and then I shed my skin
Mmm, and lemme climb back into the bed you made me in

What it was within the song that brought me to such a state of mind would take years to explain. And this is ancillary to the actual meaning content of the song. Perhaps that is what I am now doing in one way or another. For every day I "spend more time" inside that "other world," my Memory Cathedral, this timeless place. This is the true value in solitude for me. The gift.

I am often asked if I am lonely. And my answer has often been that I am lone, but not lonely. I do not long for the company of others. At least, not in a physically present sense. I do desire presence. And I feel that in those friends and family whose active and living memories I maintain as vital flames within. But the occupations of my mind are demanding and with the limited number of years remaining to me, there is no time to indulge in anything resembling loneliness. I am busy building something blasphemous and strange in here. A monument to a dead man's bones and the ghost of a god that continues to haunt me. Otherwise, the memory practice, my "religion," requires the remains of the day.

Within the Memory Cathedral, I am occupied with the necessary rituals to sustain the Fire, the Pulse. I walk the familiar path up the front steps, acknowledging the statuary on the front facade, note the allegories carved into the bronze doors, stop at the Purifying Font to wash my hands and face, step into the nave, walk through the Stations of the Sephirot towards the High Altar. Along the transepts to either side - Intellectual to the right (Poetry, Prose, Biography, History, etc.); Emotional to the left (Lovers, Friends, Family, Society, etc.) - are radiating chapels, each with it's own furnishing, statues, painting, books and icons of memories. Beyond the musical mnemonics of the choir, is the apse with painted dome and stained glass, where the Spirit is memorialized, below the bones and skull of God contained within the Crypt.

My daily walk takes me down the Transept of the Intellect to the right, where I enter into the Poetry Chapel with its altar. There is a small doorway to the right of the altar what leads to an octagonal room for Shakespeare's Sonnets. In the center of this room is a stature of Shakespeare wearing a mask. You can remove the mask to study the skull beneath it. The 8 walls contain 20 small recessed compartments arranged with icons for each sonnet. There is a final wall, next to the door, also with 20 compartments, but with only 14 containing sonnets. The remaining 6 contain other poetry by Shakespeare. So all 154 sonnets have their place. If I go to say the compartment with Sonnet 43, fourth wall, third compartment, there is a small sign above it with a winking eye. Within is a diorama with a cave labeled Plato's Cave and Figure of Beauty visible as a luminous shadow amongst other shadows. You can see time pass from night to day and the Shadow of Beauty becomes increasingly radiant until it burns like a sun. These are all mnemonic elements of Sonnet 43 for me. Additionally, I can turn on a phosphorescent web of glowing gossamer threads that connects 43 to 46 and 47, but also to 113 and 27 and 28. There is a comfortable chair where I can sit and meditate upon the web of interconnections that weave and wind through the sonnets, the room dimmed down and the interconnected sonnets like constellations in the night sky.

How much time has passed out there? At the end of my time within my Memory Cathedral, I often feel like Rip Van Winkle. Days and weeks have less and less relevance when I am inside working. This tale of Jones I am telling... a times it feels as if I am Scheherazade and the tale unfolds and forks new paths the deeper I go within, my life somehow wagered on the continued telling. This Tale of Jones is the bodying forth of the most essential aspects of my Memory Cathedral. I think of Rethel's Death as a Friend. The Tale of Jones will be complete when the bell tolls.

One of the mnemonic icons upon the altar of my Cathedral is the original handwritten text of the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu. I reach out to pick it up...

Here we are, you and I, gathered around the fire at the Gate of Bones that leads out of this world. A place called Han Chou Pass.

Many years ago, Lao-Tzu lost faith in the world of human beings. He climbed up on the ox and made his way out of the world. At the Western frontier, Han Chou Pass, there was a Gatekeeper who stopped him. The Gatekeeper recognized Lao-Tzu as a wise and holy man. He said he would only allow Lao-Tzu to pass through the Gate of Bones if he wrote his wisdom down in a book. Lao-Tzu agreed. He wrote all night. The next morning, he presented the Gatekeeper with the Tao Te Ching. The Gate of Bones were opened and Lao-Tzu climbed atop his ox and rode out of this world. The Gatekeeper recounted to all who came to the Gate of Bones the story of Lao-Tzu and encouraged them to read the Tao Te Ching. All were impressed and soon the story of Lao-Tzu and the Tao Te Ching became known all over the world.

I tell you this story here because it is a central part of the Jones tale. I may have told you all of this before. But it bears daily repetition. For the truth of the story of Lao-Tzu and the Gatekeeper - a truth that Jones understood - is that the tale is a lie. Lao-Tzu, riding his ox out of the world, reached this place, Han Chou Pass. There was no one here to prevent he and his ox from passing through. He remained here for a long time, meditating upon his duty to his self and his duty to others. 

One day, he figured out a solution: he wrote down all of his wisdom in a small book and he left it here on a stone in the middle of the path. He climbed on his ox and was on the verge of crossing over when he considered that it might be many years before anyone would find his book. Part of him enjoyed the picturing the book of his wisdom soaked with rain, baked by the sun, pages blown out by the wind, lost in the leaves and covered with dust. But another part of him resisted the loss. 

He turned the ox around and built a small hut and next to this he constructed the Gate of Bones. He assemble an altar in the corner of his hut to the memory of Lao-Tzu, set the Tao Te Ching within it. Then, he became the Gatekeeper, the teller of the tale of how he was the one who recognized Lao-Tzu as he was leaving the world and stopped him and would not allow him passage through the Gate of Bones until he had written down his wisdom. Lao-Tzu was now long gone and all the remained was the Tao Te Ching and the Gatekeeper's Tale.

There is a sorrow latent within all creation. During the process of creation, there is a unity and a one-ness with the artifact being made and carved out of the world. The language is evocative here. But after having finished, there is the inevitable withdrawal out of. The thing is done. There is the sorrow of having formed an artifact. Perhaps, abdicating the role of the creator and assuming the role of the one who has received the gift of creation is a manner of ameliorating this latent sorrow.

Steiner writes:

"At the heart of form lies a sadness, a trace of loss. A carving is the death of a stone."

There is a nostalgia for what Lao-Tzu called the "Uncarved Block." Steiner continues:

"More complexly: form has left a “rent” in the potential of non-being, it has diminished the reservoir of what might have been (truer, more exhaustive of its means). Concomitantly, in ways most difficult to articulate, major art and literature, music most readily, convey to us vestiges of the unformed, of the innocence of their source and raw material. The persistence of the abyss — French allows the epithet abyssal and it nominal use—is vitally ambiguous. There is the threat of deconstruction, but also the intimation of a great calm, of a tide whose return will cleanse matter of the separation, of the violence (I will come back to both these aspects) inherent in making. Michelangelo is almost obsessed by this nostalgia for the sleep in the marble prior to the chisel."

And,

"Rousseau’s summation in La Nouvelle Héloīse is lapidary: 'such is the nothingness of things human that, except for the Being which exists self-created, there is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist' ('hors l’Etre existant par lui-même, il n’y a rien de beau que ce qui n’est pas')."

The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
I don't know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

***

And so, time passes within me as I pass time. Out here in the woods, I can hear the silence and I strive to listen to the silence. Within my Memory Cathedral, I sit before the "rent," the tear, the wound of Being from which emanates a fiery vision. The Shiva Nataraja holding open this wound, dances before me. What can I say when the sounds in my mouth become stones and ash in the saying? What can I write when each word is a miserable thimble of the ocean of this experience? Nothing. The language, these sounds and these words, are only mnemonics - they only "stand for" and do not "stand in stead."

One night, I saw the moon, prurient, full and luminous in the water of a bucket. And I stole it. And though I carry the bucket with me everywhere and drink from it everyday, somewhere along the way, I lost the moon. I want to believe it spilled over the side or fell out when I wasn't looking. However, I know the truth is that it was never in the bucket to begin with. So it is with my language.

That "silence between the notes' that Debussy speaks of, is also there - to a much lesser degree - in the language. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein attempts to say everything that can be said but ends up saying only that that which is most meaningful can not be said and must be passed over in silence. But this is not surrender. (cf. Philosophical Investigations) The language does not fail. Only the imagination. The words adumbrate silence, hover around the unsaid and unsayable like Rilke's creatures emerging from the "unbound forest" to listen to the silence at the Temple.

A tree ascended there. Oh pure transendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.

Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not
from fear, that they were so quiet in themselves,

but from just listening. Bellow, roar, shriek
seemed small inside their hearts. And where there had been
at most a makeshift hut to receive the music,

a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
with an entryway that shuddered in the wind-
you built a temple deep inside their hearing.

(Stephen Mitchell listening to Lao Tzu)